Understanding South Africa, really?

Understanding South Africa, really?

A new book has been published that provides an overview of historical and contemporary South Africa, appearing at the start of February. Its title makes a bold claim, Understanding South Africa. The authors are Carien Du Plessis and Martin Plaut and its cover and title page are shown in the photographs here.

It’s a good read and largely well written (though with repetitions of some passages across the chapters). It slips down easily, and provides an overview that is very up-to-date in terms of the content of each chapter. But what the book as a whole does not provide, ironically, is understanding. Insofar as there is an interpretation of why and how South Africa is as it is, this lies in the descriptions that compose the focus of each chapter, rather than an argument with evidence considered for the particular interpretation/s being advanced. One instance is that the chapter on ‘Violent politics in a violent society’ focuses on political violence, but the context of a wider violence in South African society is not really discussed and the emphasis is on political events, machinations and vendettas. Understanding South Africa requires, however, a better understanding why the character of civic and social as well as political life is characterised by the routinisation of violence such that this has become an endemic feature. The brutalisation of everybody that was part and parcel of apartheid and also earlier racialised injustices could have been considered, for example, or the current rise of xenophobia towards migrant workers in the context of increasingly scarce resources in South Africa, for another example. And as with this chapter, so with the others. But these wider issues with longer-term origins and widespread ramifications, which need considering as part of gaining an interpretational understanding, are not really there.

So why is this? The chapter contents are all quite detailed, but inevitably the authors are at the mercy of the secondary sources drawn on. Although these are extensive, inevitably there is a large amount of simplification involved, with the issues and controversies – precisely, differences in understanding and interpretation – that are being debated by those carrying out primary work being largely absent. Some of the secondary sources and claimed facts are more reliable, others less so and make claims that have been superseded or are hotly disputed. The book has gone for breadth rather than depth, and certainly there is a place for this. However, personally I would want to write a PS to each chapter pointing out the interpretational issues and raising more and less persuasive arguments before handing a copy of it to, for example, a PhD student embarking on research and needing a quick fix background on South African matters. Consequently, while this is a decent and certainly up-to-date as well as readable overview for those with comparatively little knowledge, for others it will be on a range of tantalising to tut-tutting.

Last updated: 12 March 2020


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